Elephants Are Elephants – and Symbols

As children we knew about the Thai elephants; we visited the Zoo and they were important parts of a Danish child’s creativity and fantasies. I also came to admire these huge, grey and elegant creatures during my school days. We learned about the Punic Wars and antique Rome. To fight the Romans in their own heartland, Hannibal brought with him 37 African elephants from Carthagenia; they crossed the Pyrenees and passed the Alps – and they did so walking the narrow paths and mountain passes normally used by mountain goats. Elephants know exactly where to tread, and elegant they definitely are.
No wonder, then, that they were also used by medieval sovereigns as symbols of strength and power. The most prestigious Danish Order of the Elephant was established with its present statutes in 1693, but dates even further back. The Siamese Highest order, The Order of the White Elephant, was established in 1861. Elephants have always attracted the high and the lowly.

Humble Zoo beginnings
The ornithologist Niels Kjaerboelling opened Copenhagen Zoological Garden in 1859. The inhabitants consisted of eagles, hens, ducks, owls, rabbits, a fox, a seal in a bathtub and a turtle in a bucket. That was the humble beginning, but soon more and more animals were included in the garden population.

Eng and Chang
It must have been a singular ‘growth experience’ when the first two elephants arrived in 1878. They had travelled from Bangkok onboard one of Consul Frederik C. C. Koebkes tallships, and they were a gift from the very highly esteemed Consul and his 76-year-old mother; widow and ship-owner Mette Marie Koebke, born Bruun.
The first elephant was Eng, female, born in 1872. She died at the young age of 21 in 1893. Chang, the male, was also born 1872. He lived until 1918 in the Zoo.
These two were named after the famous pair of ‘Siamese twins born at that time; another of Koebkes jokes, I suppose.

Baby and Ellen
In 1896, Admiral Andreas Richelieu donated two small females: Baby and Ellen. Baby died, but with Chang as father, Ellen later delivered more offspring. At that time it was a sensation that elephants in captivity could carry the fetus for 18 months, and then deliver the calf without any problems. This couple became the founders of the elephant breeding program in Copenhagen and they both remained in Copenhagen Zoo all their lives.

Ø and K
In 1929 ØK (EAC) presented the Zoo with two more elephants named Ø, a male born in 1924, and K, a female, born in 1923. ? was later sold by the Zoo to Tierhandelsfirma Ruhe in Germany. We don’t know why. K lived to be 41 years old.
In Siam/Thailand at that time, hundreds of elephants worked in the company’s teak concessions in and around Phrae in Northern Thailand. They dragged the logs to the creeks and rivers.

Chieng Mai, Lamphun and Buak Hag
The year 1962 represented a new phase in the relationship between the Thai elephants, the Zoo and the general public. On January 29, King Frederik wrote a private letter to Dr. B?je Benzon, the chairman of the self-governing Copenhagen Zoo:
“As you will know, I have been given three young elephants in Thailand. I would like to ask whether I can keep the three elephants in the Zoological Garden. The youngest and last is only seven month old, and so for the next two years it is doubtful when it will arrive. The other two will arrive within some months……….” [my translation].
Of course, these three ‘royal’ elephants, Chieng Mai, Lamphun and Buak Hag were heartily welcomed and the whole nation followed their news with great interest. By this time all homes had TV’s, and the public were able to follow their progress.
The most impressive elephant in captivity I have ever seen is Chieng Mai, born in 1959. A great grandfather and patriarch of the Zoo in Copenhagen where he has lived since the day he arrived in 1962, whose offspring is now found in many European Zoos. He is really huge and has the longest tusks I’ve ever seen.
Chieng Mai has his own quarters, since male elephants only mingle with the females during the short mating period. The herds are matriarchal and are generally led by an old female, followed by the other females and young elephants.
Together with Lamphun (male, born in 1961) and Buak Hag (female, born in 1958), Chingmai were a gift from king Bhumibol to the late king Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid. They visited Thailand during the first weeks of January that year, and they named the elephants after the beautiful places they had been shown.
Chieng Mai and Buak Hag mated and again founded a dynasty of elephants born in captivity.
The youngest, Lamphun, lived for some years in Copenhagen, but was later sent to Vejle Zoo.

Tonsak, Kungrao and Surin
Then, on November 27, 2001, another three elephants arrived, one male and two females – Tonsak, Kungrao and Surin. This time there was no need to ask the zoo for lodging beforehand as the Zoological Garden was prepared and ready. Two of the garden’s elephant keepers had been with the elephants in Bangkok for 14 days before their departure for Copenhagen.
In Bangkok Tonsak, Kungrao and Surin were blessed by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn just before they boarded the cargo plane. Onboard were also their three mahouts and a veterinarian.
Earlier in 1962 Queen Margrethe II and Prince Henrik had paid an official visit to the King and Queen of Thailand. On their departure, King Bhumibol repeated his gesture from 1962 and gave the royal elephants Tonsak and and Kungrao as a farewell gift. Surin was a gift from the people of Surin Province.
In the presence of Queen Margrethe II and Prince Henrik, officials from the Thai Embassy and a delegation from Thailand, the three were then handed over to the Garden on November 30, 2001.
The Zoological Garden in Copenhagen has now opened a new elephant compound. It offers first class conditions that few other zoological gardens anywhere in the world could match.

Left: Crown Princess Sirindhorn blessed Tonsak, Kungrao and Surin before the departure to Denmark in 2001.
Right: Tnsak, Kungrao and Surin were received in Denmark by HM Queen Margrethe and HRH Prince Henrik.

The author would like to thank director Bengt Holst, Zoo, Copenhagen for most valuable information and guidance re the elephants – dead and alive.


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